Rule Breaking vs. Ignoring

April 23, 2019

My friend Grace brought me back a bag full of kumquats from her parent’s neighbor’s front yard. They were tasty by themselves but there were too many to eat, so I decided to make marmalade out of them. I had never made marmalade before, so I diligently followed the recipe I found on the web. It was enough for two jars, so I gave one to Grace with the label I designed.

I’m a firm believer in following the rules until I master them first. I find that many Americans are so eager to break the rules that they don’t even learn the rules. “Think outside the box” has become such a cliché that, I heard, some adverting agency banned the use of that phrase.

The problem with not mastering the rules is that you cannot break them if you don’t know what they are. There is a difference between breaking the rules and ignoring them. Rock musicians often ignore music theories because they don’t want to think of themselves as rule followers. They jump right ahead to “breaking” the rules but all they are doing is following the rules poorly. They are just “rule ignorers”, not rule breakers.

I’m not sure what the point of looking outside the box is if you don’t even know what’s inside it. I think Americans’ eagerness to break the rules is a reaction to their insecurity about the lack of traditions. It’s hard for them to compete with the know-how passed through many generations. Americans had to differentiate themselves in other ways. Since they could not master the rules as well as the Europeans, they had to downplay the rules. Breaking for the sake of breaking became their preoccupation and an existential differentiator.

The same is true for creativity and originality. American children are pressured to be creative and original, but it’s perfectly possible to become original and phony at the same time. It’s more important to be true to yourself even if that self is unoriginal.

Before you try to break the rules, to look outside the box, be creative, or original, first you should get to know who you are. If you succeed, in all likelihood, you’ll discover that you are already original and breaking the rules without trying.